Still from Uniclones. Image courtesy of the artist.

An Artist Filmed Animals in Uniqlo Sweaters Because Consumerism Makes Us Sheep

Surprisingly, the sheep were hardest to direct!

by Erin Schwartz
Feb 23 2018, 1:23pm

Still from Uniclones. Image courtesy of the artist.

There’s a scene in Uniclones, a two-channel video by artist MarieVic currently displayed at Stems Gallery in Brussels, in which ten goats in bright Uniqlo cashmere sweaters amble across a grassy cliff in Mongolia. The scene is shot from above, and the rock face seems precipitous, but the mountain goats are supremely comfortable; they munch, leap and pounce, sure-footed enough to avoid a fall. Then the cuffed sleeve of a sky-blue sweater sags from a goat’s leg, and, as the film jump-cuts ahead, the sweater is abandoned. The flock moves on and the garment remains, but now, it feels part of the landscape, as natural as a patch of wild cornflowers. Uniclones is full of strange images like this: over the sounds of flies buzzing, Mongolian throat singing, and an SUV jostling on its axles, goats, sheep, yaks, reindeer, and camels roam in broad vistas of pasture and sand, all wearing... Uniqlo.

The inspiration for the video came while the New York-based artist was biking down Broadway and noticed herds of tourists weighed down with Uniqlo bags, and thought of a visual pun: flocks of sheep wearing the brand's mass-produced sweaters. She wanted to draw a loose metaphor between consumer habits and herding: “A pastoral lifestyle is about the relationship between the herder and its herd of animals. The herder’s life depends on the herd, and he’ll move around… according to whatever the animals need. At the same time, the animals seem to be living freely, but within certain parameters. At the end of the day, it’s always up to the herder to say what’s going to happen to them.”

MarieVic worked with a travel agency to develop an itinerary, and set out from Ulaanbataar, the country’s capital, in a Land Cruiser with her director of photography Jason Brownrigg, a friend, a driver, and a translator. They went looking for camels first, in the Gobi Desert; MarieVic would approach a nomadic family, explain the project over tea and homemade food through her translator, showing them an image of a sheep in a sweater that usually elicited a smile. (The photo came from a test run she did on American farm.) She traded gifts—chocolate, liquor and cigarettes—for access to the animals. “They were all very generous… There’s a real sense of welcoming people when you approach a nomadic family.”

Still from Uniclones. Image courtesy of the artist.

MarieVic produced the video with a small crew over the course of three weeks, traveling some 1,800 miles, bouncing along dirt roads from the Gobi Desert to the taiga, sleeping in tents, weathering thunderstorms. They once rode six hours on horseback, cameras in tow, to catch migrating reindeer. If this seems like a tremendous amount of effort just to get footage of goats wearing Uniqlo sweaters, MarieVic is so matter-of-fact about it that I was convinced that this couldn’t have happened any other way. The video’s strange, almost apocalyptic stillness, its expansiveness, couldn’t have been conjured with farm sheep on a New England hillside.

The nomadic herders usually helped to catch, dress, and position the animals in front of cameras set up close enough to the flock to not cause anxiety in the herd animals. “I had to be smart enough to create a frame that would be comfortable for the animal to be in, because you cannot really contain a goat—you cannot tell a goat, ‘Alright, you go there and do that.’ That does not work,” MarieVic joked. She told me that hardest subjects were “by far the sheep.” She compared the flock to a rippling piece of wool, and said that, on approach, “you create a hole in the fabric, because they’ll run away from you. But they’re not even running, they’re flying. It’s very, very strange. It’s beautiful.” The easiest to work with? Reindeer, which she describes as “the most graceful creatures.”

Once the animals were wearing the clothes, bought in New York—goats take a medium, sheep take a men’s medium or a women’s large, and reindeer, obviously, can only wear puffers—the artist claims that they barely noticed the difference. “Sometimes the goats would eat their sweaters and go on with their lives, keep on playing, and they couldn’t care less.” MarieVic estimates she spent about $500 on the clothes, and still has them all, except for one piece: a goat ran off into the Gobi Desert wearing a down jacket. The unworried herders assured her that the animal would find its way home eventually, but they had to move on before goat and coat reappeared.

Installation view from Uniclones at Stem Gallery. Image courtesy of the artist.

Stills from the video are displayed at Stems Gallery alongside heaps of Uniqlo clothing from the shoot, which, even a year later, “smell very strongly.” (The videos themselves are available at Sedition.) The piles of bright, muddied cashmere reference the waste of fast fashion, the distance travelled by the materials to produce a mass-market sweater. (Uniqlo has recently taken steps to mitigate their environmental impact.) But the images are harder to place than that; in the placid landscape, the animals seem free, and there’s an otherworldly sense that we’re observing an alternate universe where humans have left and the animals wear our clothes like a second skin.

“I had a lot of things I wanted to say in these very simple images,” MarieVic said. “The idea is very simple, but there are a lot of layers to it.”

fast fashion
video art